Gloom descends over Serie A after unhappy week

Milan: A fresh refereeing row, another match-fixing scandal and failure to get a team to the Champions League semi-finals for the second year running have cast gloom over the weekend`s Serie A matches.

Leaders AC Milan will go into their match at home to Fiorentina (Saturday 1300) still smarting from their Champions League exit at the hands of Barcelona in midweek and the goal that never was against Catania the weekend before.

They will, however, have the comfort of knowing that opponents Fiorentina are even worse off than themselves after a miserable run of one win in nine matches, which has seen them plummet towards the relegation zone.

Juventus, who have cut Milan`s lead to two points and remain unbeaten after 30 games, visit unpredictable Palermo.

Juventus` form over the last few weeks has been one of the bright spots and they can be credited with making the title race one of the most exciting in recent years.

Their sleek new stadium, invariably full and with the crowd urging the team on only metres from the pitch, is a novelty in a league usually criticised for its rundown, half-empty arena.

But this week has shown that the old problems are still bubbling under the surface.

On Monday, former Bari defender Andrea Masiello was arrested and eight of his former team mates placed under investigation for allegedly fixing matches in Serie A last season, when their side was relegated.

Masiello, interrogated for three hours on Wednesday, is still playing in Serie A for Atalanta, themselves deducted six points this season over match-fixing in Serie B last season when they won promotion.

There was another reminder of Italy`s problems on Wednesday when former Juventus general manager Luciano Moggi lost his appeal against a life-ban for his part in the scandal which led to the Turin club being demoted and stripped of the 2005 and 2006 titles.

Refereeing has also been in the spotlight after Milan were on the wrong end of a goal-line controversy for the second time in a matter of weeks as officials failed to spot that a Robinho shot had crossed the line in the 1-1 draw at Catania.

Milan posted a photograph on their website showing the ball over the line under the title "unacceptable."

There had been an even more clearcut incident in the 1-1 draw against Juventus, when Sulley Muntari`s header clearly entered the Juve goal but the referee missed it.

On Tuesday, the gulf between the Serie A and Spain`s La Liga was all too clear as Barcelona eased past AC Milan 3-1 to end Italy`s interest in European competition this season.

Milan complained bitterly about the penalty which led to Barca`s second goal, apparently forgetting the two soft penalties they were awarded in home matches against Viktoria Plzen and Arsenal earlier in the campaign.

"They only scored once from open play," complained striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

"Champions League curse? No we have our heads held high. Now we have great anger to channel into the race for the league."

Fiorentina, 17th with 33 points and five clear of the relegation zone, may almost be relieved to be playing at San Siro after being given a hostile reception by fans in recent home matches.

"Playing at home when your players are frightened really does not help, as it robs them of energy and focus," said beleaguered coach Delio Rossi.

Rossi, the subject of speculation that he could be fired to make way for the return of Sinisa Mihajlovic, wanted to hold peace talks with the Curva Fiesole fans this week but they turned down his invitation.

Milan have 64 points, followed by Juventus on 62, and the pair look certain to take Italy`s two direct places in the Champions League group stage next season.

On Saturday, there is a key match in the race for the Champions League qualifying round place as Lazio, third with 51 points, host Napoli, who are three points behind them and level with Udinese in fourth.

Alberto Malesani, fired by Genoa earlier in the season, will begin his second stint with the side after replacing Pasquale Marino, himself fired on Monday to become the 17th coaching victim of the season. Genoa visit Novara.

Bureau Report